Robbing the Commons for
the Games of the Wealthy
Brothers and Sisters this magnificent structure is now ready
Now you may leave…
With your full strength
You cut the ground
Laid a deep foundation
Many of your comrades
Were even buried beneath the earth
To be brief, you’ve created
A shimmering heaven
Of comfort, convenience and freedom
A secure enclave
For this labour
Many thanks to you
Now you may leave
…those dim hovels you’ve erected over there
You’d better clear them off too…
You are free
our responsibilities are over
now it is not right for you to stay here for a minute longer
Gorakh Pandey, Swarg Se Bidai (Adieu from Heaven)
In the wake of the 1982 Asiad Games in the national capital, Gorakh Pandey wrote his scathing satirical poem that accurately reflected the refined menace with which the government and the elite evicted the workers from the very heaven which they had created with their sweat and blood. In 1982, migrant workers had been herded from across the North Indian states to quickly erect flyovers, bridges and stadiums. Long before night shifts became the norm of city life, as preparation for the 1982 Asian Games began, workers were sweating day and night to build some of the prominent landmarks of the city. Many lost their lives in accidents on construction sites where labour and safety laws were routinely violated. Soon, however, the city that they had constructed turned its back on them and they were unceremoniously sent packing even before the opening ceremony!
28 years later, in preparation for the Commonwealth Games 2010, the same hypocrisies and injustices that Gorakh unerringly identified are being re-enacted with redoubled cruelty: migrant workers are again being brought in at a great rate to meet the construction deadlines for the 2010 Commonwealth Games that the Delhi government is proudly hosting; a large number of workers at Delhi Metro as well as Games construction sites have lost their lives in accidents caused by negligence; the labour and dignity of the poor are being subjected to sheer humiliation; and eviction from the heaven of their creation, already underway for Delhi’s slum dwellers, no doubt awaits the migrant workers who are working overtime today.
Commonwealth: Colonial Legacy
72 countries that were former British colonies, along with their erstwhile coloniser Britain, constitute the 'Commonwealth'. The Games began in 1918 as a celebration of the Empire on which the “sun never sets”, with countries of the British Empire competing with each other in sporting events. Instead of being a matter of ‘pride’, hosting the games at once upholds a shameful past and pays tribute to it. The sun did set on the Empire, yet the apologists and agents of colonialism eager to uphold the colonial legacy remain (and rule) in most of these countries. In our own country, we have a Prime Minister who went to Oxford and declared that the ills of Empire were exaggerated and the British Raj was in fact a model of “good governance!”
Reprioritisation in Favour of the Rich
Continuing the colonial tradition of surrendering the interests of the people without even informing them, the Games are being held in the country without a debate in the Parliament, or finding out whether the people of Delhi want to host such games. In a country which has the dubious distinction of having more poor people in 8 of its States than exist in 26 of the poorest African nations (according to the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI)), is it not a crime against the people to reprioritise thousands of crores of rupees in favour of Games, without even consulting the people whom this decision will affect?
We can get an idea of the implications of such reprioritisation from the fact that the entire expenditure for the 12-day event could have controlled infant mortality of poor children through ICDS and housing for the poor through Indira Awas Yojana for an entire year (as has been argued in a Report by the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) titled ‘Whose Wealth, Whose Commons’)
Towards the ‘Games’, the government has accelerated a round of commercialisation and privatisation with its culture of kickbacks, cuts and commissions (that began with the bidding itself). The approval for bidding for the Games was given during NDA rule in 2003 to the Indian Olympic Committee, a body unaccountable to the public, which went on to drain the public exchequer. Since then, in the Congress regime, luxuries have been promised to the participants and officials and unprecedented monetary offers amounting to bribes given to ensure that the Games came to India. The Games, therefore, exemplifies the continuity that links NDA’s hoax of ‘Shining India’ to the Congress’ hoax of ‘world class city.’
The build-up to the Games has exposed the true face of the neo-liberalism and its model of urbanisation, city planning and sports development. While governments have been busy cutting down on health, education, housing and transport budgets that could provide some relief to the city's poor, an extravaganza is being played out for the rich. Public money and budgets have been siphoned off and government funding reprioritised to fulfil the needs of Games. The CWG budget has been allowed to escalate without any moderation so much so that there has been a 2160 percent increase in the construction budget of stadiums and training centres. It may be noted here that across the world it has long been established that major sporting events hardly encourage the development of a sporting culture within the host country - even a Parliamentary Standing Committee has acknowledged that the plight of Indian sport requires basic reorientation, an issue that has been pathetically neglected. In the meantime sports infrastructure meant for CWG has devoured most of the sports money in the country. The experience with Asiad infrastructure shows much of the newly constructed structures will either be torn down, fall apart after the event or be given out for non-sporting purposes for a huge fee.
Apart from CWG event infrastructure, thousands of crores of rupees have been spent for non-competition venues. The beneficiaries of this non-sport infrastructure, it has already been established, will be the rich and wealthy of this city, who have carved out opulent enclaves for themselves. The Games village for instance, is going to be auctioned out as luxury flats and the Congress MLAs have also laid their claim to these fancy apartments built on the Yamuna river bank.
The transport infrastructure for the events has skewed the entire transport allocation for Delhi, and in 2010-11 it has become as high as 38 percent of the total budget. Yet it is not as if the transport concerns of the common people have been met; or as if high density areas have been better connected; rather the allocation has been primarily for increasing the connectivity of the Games sites. Moreover hikes in transport prices has meant that the common people in the city are now having to pay more for their daily travel by buses, autorickshaws and metros. The Congress Chief Minister in Delhi in the meantime did a Marie Antoinette, declaring that Delhi-ites must pay more for transport if they wanted to travel world class in low floor green buses that have been introduced before the Games. It is another matter that these buses have been bought by the government for Rs 20 lakhs more than what has been spent by the Tamil Nadu government. It is also another matter that these buses have been catching fire on the streets of Delhi, forcing manufacturers to offer the incredible confession that the buses were not meant for Indian roads!
The need of the city's labouring population do not feature in the water, sanitation , sewage, medical infrastructure development while thousands of crores of rupees are directed towards putting up a CWG gypsy camp. The longevity of these projects is of no concern to the government as the hurried constructions have started falling apart with the first rains. There has been a massive diversion of funds too, with the assurance that no new health projects will be started this year and the next. The Delhi Finance Minister declared that the government was broke. The official estimates pitch the expenditure for the CWG between 10,000 to 30,000 crore rupees. There are others who place it higher. The total costs are expected to be much higher and adding up the costs of this extravaganza may happen only after it is all over and has dragged Delhi into a financial crisis. But the opulence continues to flow from the IOC offices under government patronage. Snacks costing Rs 29 lakhs have been consumed by the officials in the meeting till now and Rs 29 crores has been spent on Bollywood performance at the Melbourne CWG’s closing ceremony to herald the Games in India. What has been appalling however has been the way the funds meant for the most marginalised sections of society are being siphoned away, as seen in the diversion of the Delhi Scheduled Caste sub plan (2009-10) amounting to 265 crores for the CWG. Similarly the government has declared it has no money left for Metro's third phase.
As a consequence of the reprioritisation, the direct and indirect taxes in Delhi have been increased to raise funds for the CWG, thus making the poor and lower middle classes pay huge amounts for essential commodities. Housing in Delhi has become expensive with land prices shooting up because of CWG construction.
Even the much touted Public Private Partnership adopted for infrastructure development for the Games has indicated that there has been a siphoning off of public money for private purpose and the grand Games village that was to be developed by a private developer Emaar MGF sought a bail-out of Rs 700 crore from DDA for pulling out of the recessionary markets.
In a unique mockery of all planning norms, India’s ruling classes restructured Delhi’s Master Plan to fit the agenda of the CWG, rather than fitting CWG into the Master Plan.
Robbing Workers of their Rights and Lives
More than 1,50,000 migrant workers are working at the CWG construction sites, yet ironically those who are creating the world-class facilities are being forced to live in appalling subhuman conditions. They have had to pay for their own travel to and within Delhi, and are subjected to 12-hour work days, seven days a week, to meet the deadlines. Women are paid less, the wages are paid late and far below the stipulated minimum wage. From each worker Rs 30 to Rs 150 is stolen daily by underpaying him or her. Thus it is not untrue that the workers are subsidising the city's rich.
In a landmark 1982 judgement in a case filed by the PUDR regarding violation of workers’ rights on Asiad work sites, the Supreme Court had made it clear that the denial of minimum wages amounted to ‘begar’ or forced labour; that the unequal payment of women and men was a denial of the right to equality, and the violation of laws relating to contract and migrant workers was a violation of constitutional rights to life and liberty. But it is clear that nothing has changed in the last 3 decades. Once again, the PUDR approached Court with a comprehensive report (‘In the Name of National Pride’) indicting the authorities for the blatant violation of labour laws and workers’ sites at Games construction sites. The Delhi High Court took note of the violations and appointed a panel to oversee the implementation of the laws – but in spite of this, it is all too clear that the rampant violations continue undeterred by any raps on the knuckles by the Court.
Eviction and Humiliation of the Poor
Most mocking of all are the Government’s claims that CWG will generate employment and boost trade. Far from generating any jobs, the Games have snatched away the livelihood of thousands of people through eviction, and people have been displaced to far-flung areas outside the city. And Delhi’s street vendors and regular eateries of the city's people have been declared criminalised and declared illegal.
Between 2003-2008, up to 4 lakh people are said to have been evicted from the capital. The evictions have taken place without resettlement or compensation and have left most of those evicted homeless. Arbitrarily, shelters for the homeless were demolished leaving the residents to freeze last winter. Slums that couldn't be demolished or burnt down in deliberately set fires, are being hidden away behind hedges of fast growing bamboo, so that the embarrassment of Indian poverty need not mar our rulers’ ‘national pride’ in the eyes of foreign Games tourists. Also, of course, so that the wealthy and privileged can enjoy the products of the labour of the poor, free from any hint of guilt induced by the actual presence of the poor. The homeless and destitute in the city are being branded as ‘beggars’ and are now being bundled away to far off locations, away from the world class city. Crores of money is being spent to ensure this humiliation of the poor.
In Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia, hostels are being forcibly emptied for the Games, and rents have risen steeply as landlords scramble to make hay while the students are forced to shift to rented accommodation.
Towards the Games, one of the concerns expressed by Delhi CM Shiela Dixit is the ‘crassness,’ ‘rudeness’ and ‘dirty habits’ of residents of Delhi; an ad campaign has been launched to harangue the people of Delhi into learning ‘civilised’ behaviour. Underneath this civilised veneer – that finds it disgusting to see people spitting or honking horns – lies a cold and calculated violence against the poor. The Commonwealth Games extravaganza is no sporting matter – it is, literally, a game being played with the labour, lives and livelihoods of the poor.